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In Memoriam: Arthur E. Overholtzer

In Memoriam: Arthur E. Overholtzer

January 27, 1910 — 1982

by Bruce McGuire

Originally published in American Lutherie #35, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

In 1969 I was a student at Chico State, a hippie living in a rented house. One day the older man who lived next door came over to introduce himself. He said he was teaching a group of people to make guitars, and needed space for wood and tools; could he use my basement? I had never even played the guitar at that time, but I told him he could use the space if he would take me on as his apprentice.

That’s how I met Art Overholtzer. For three years I was his neighbor and private student. He became like a father to me. I helped him write his book Classical Guitar Making and took all the pictures except the ones that I am in. I’m proud of my legacy and relationship to one of the world’s best classical guitarmakers.

Arthur Overholtzer. All photos courtesy of Bruce McGuire.
Art and Bruce (seated at front) with students of the 1969 guitar-building class at Chico State College.
Bruce McGuire.
Art working on a soundboard.

Art suffered a severe heart attack in 1971, and he summoned me to his bedside. He asked me to take over his guitarmaking class at Chico State and carry on after him. I did both as best I could. He asked me to look after Orpha, his aging wife, and to make sure his book was published. As it turned out, he lived to see it in print and his heart condition was abated for awhile.

After moving to Santa Cruz in 1972, I continued building by Overholtzer’s technique. I also took on a student by the name of Richard Hoover. He built his first guitar under my supervision and we worked together as partners. My instruments bore my name as BR McGuire Guitars. His guitars bore the name Otis B. Rodeo. I took Richard up to the Overholtzers’ house in Chico to introduce him to my grand master. They liked each other instantly. Art was pleased to see Richard’s first guitar and he found comfort that I was passing on the tradition of training an apprentice in quality guitarmaking.

Richard was single, and in a position to devote his full time to instrument building. I had two girls at the time, and it was necessary for me to have a full-time job in addition to guitar building to support my family. In 1975 Richard Hoover and I parted company and he began the Santa Cruz Guitar Company.

Santa Cruz has been extremely successful and their guitars are some of the finest in the world. Richard has had interviews in numerous publications over the years and it burdens me that Art Overholtzer is often left out of the chronology. It was his precision, knowledge of wood, method of wood selection, and theory of building a guitar with no stress that was passed through me to Richard and his employees.

Editor’s note: Richard Hoover comments that he “owes an undying debt of gratitude to both Bruce McGuire and Art Overholtzer,” who he calls “the grandfather of my lineage.” Richard agrees with Bruce McGuire that it is unfortunate that nonlutherie publications generally edit out his mention of Overholtzer’s strong influence on a generation of guitarmakers.

My guitarmaking has been somewhat sporadic lately. I have three more children and a rich family life. I also have a new apprentice by the name of Steve Clifford who is the youth pastor of Santa Cruz Bible Church. We just glued the back on his first rosewood classical guitar.

Steve's guitar will sound incredible because I let him use my finest rosewood and spruce from the '60s. Art and I purchased rosewood in Berkeley when it cost $1.50 per pound and I still have enough to last the rest of my life. All of Art’s hardwood was passed on to me. Some of it has been drying for fifty years. His Sitka spruce came from Alaska thirty years ago and I also have a lifelong supply of it.

I need no recognition from Steve. Instead, the recognition will be to our Lord who was very close to Art Overholtzer and myself. Steve leads worship services with guitar and he has a great impact in his music ministry. Art will be smiling down from heaven when he realizes that his tradition of unconditional faith, uncompromising quality, and integrity have been passed on in a profound way. A thousand people will sing each week along with an instrument built by his apprentice’s apprentice.

Art Overholtzer needs to be given credit for being a fine human being who made an enormous contribution to guitar building through his unfailing generosity and through sharing his knowledge of guitar building with anyone who asked.